Some further reactions to George Lakoff at the LSE

I live blogged Professor Lakoff’s discussion at the LSE yesterday. There can be no doubting the importance of his body of work, and the huge influence it has had on politics generally and American politics in particular. Certainly, the study of metaphors and their seeming power poses a huge challenge to more rational perspectives on political life and debate, and I mean that both in the Antony Downs and Jurgen Habermas sense of the term rational.

Indeed, for me Professor Lakoff’s view of emotion in politics was perhaps the most striking idea he offered last night, in that it amounted to almost a post-revisionist perspective on the relationship between rationality and emotion. As you can see from the liveblog, Lakoff was highly critical of enlightenment views of rationality. This is not a wholly unique perspective. Many scholars focusing on deliberation (such as John Dryzek, for example) have argued that an overly prescriptive definition of “good” deliberation, which excludes emotions such as anger and humour is not very helpful. But where Lakoff took this a step further was in drawing on research from the field of neuro-science, and in particular arguing that because of the way the human brain is wired, the distinction between rationality and emotion is false. Put another way: if you take away people’s emotion, they do not become wholly rational. In reality, rationality and emotion are wholly symbiotic. This is a very challenging insight for political scientist used to arguing about the relative merits of rational and emotional debate.

I was left with more questions on the relationship between metaphor and ideology. Perhaps Professor Lakoff’s most famous idea is derived from two models of the family and how they relate to political world views. There is the nurturing family, where the assumption is that parents are equals and seek to bring out the best traits in their offspring, who they assume to be inherently good. This view is equated with progressive and liberal thought. Alternatively, there is the family model based on the strong and domineering father-figure, who commands his children, assuming them to be unruly and misguided. Only if they follow his instructions they can then be reformed. If they do not, they are guilty of a moral failing and the family’s moral responsibility ceases. This metaphor is associated with a conservative political worldview.

But there is a great tension in these metaphors and their political ramifications, I felt. On the one hand, Professor Lakoff was keen to stress the permanent and geographically non-limited spread of metaphors (the examples given in the lecture were the link between increase and up, and affection and warmth). The reason is that metaphors are grounded in lived experiences, constantly creating and solidifying those neural-networks. In contrast though, the ideological consequences of the family metaphors are clearly grounded in the recent American experience of the past thirty years or so. These metaphors become far more problematic if we consider different strands of conservative thought, for example. How, for instance, would we think of Bismark? A stern father-figure, certainly, but also the founder of the modern welfare state model. Harold Macmillan presents another interesting challenge, as his ideology was the very model of conservative paternalism, but has no relationship to harshness of the contemporary US right. Even Richard Nixon, who might be regarded as the founder of the modern US conservative movement is a problematic figure. His administration fits well with the model in someways, but also attempted to expand healthcare greatly.

This leads to a broader question about the family metaphor and ideology: what is in the service of what? Put another way, does the metaphor shape the ideology, or does the ideology employ the metaphor, or are both these processes occurring at once?

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